The history of research ethics in social science is a long and complex one. It has been shaped by a number of factors, including the development of new research methods, the rise of social movements, and public awareness of ethical violations.
In the early days of social science research, there were few formal ethical guidelines. Researchers often conducted their studies without any regard for the rights or welfare of their participants. This led to a number of high-profile ethical violations, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the Milgram Experiments.
These ethical violations led to a growing awareness of the need for ethical standards in social science research. In 1974, the U.S. Congress passed the National Research Act, which established the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. This commission was tasked with developing ethical guidelines for social science research.
The commission’s report, “The Belmont Report,” outlined three basic ethical principles for social science research: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. These principles have been widely adopted by social scientists and have helped to shape the ethical landscape of social science research.
In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on the need for cultural sensitivity in social science research. This is due in part to the increasing diversity of the world’s population and the growing awareness of the ways in which culture can shape research findings.
As a result of these developments, the field of research ethics in social science is constantly evolving. New ethical challenges are emerging all the time, and researchers must be prepared to adapt their practices accordingly.
- 1949: The Nuremberg Code is adopted, outlining ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects.
- 1964: The Declaration of Helsinki is adopted, providing recommendations for biomedical research involving human subjects.
- 1974: The National Research Act is passed, establishing the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research.
- 1979: The Belmont Report is published, outlining three basic ethical principles for social science research: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice.
- 1991: The American Psychological Association adopts its first code of ethics for research with human participants.
- 2002: The National Bioethics Advisory Commission issues its report, “Ethical and Policy Issues in Human Stem Cell Research,” which discusses the ethical implications of stem cell research.
- 2013: The American Sociological Association adopts its first code of ethics for research with human participants.
This study, which ran from 1932 to 1972, involved 600 African American men who were infected with syphilis but not treated. The researchers observed the men’s progression of the disease without providing them with treatment, even after penicillin became available. This study was unethical because it violated the men’s right to informed consent and because it exposed them to unnecessary harm.
These experiments, which were conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, investigated obedience to authority. In the experiments, participants were told to deliver electric shocks to another person, who was actually an actor. The shocks were fake, but the participants did not know this. Many of the participants continued to deliver shocks even when the actor was begging them to stop. This study was unethical because it caused psychological distress to the participants.
This experiment, which was conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971, simulated a prison environment. Participants were randomly assigned to be either guards or prisoners. The guards quickly began to abuse the prisoners, and the prisoners became increasingly submissive. This study was unethical because it created a stressful and potentially harmful environment for the participants. These are just a few examples of unethical applications of social science research. These studies have helped to raise awareness of the importance of ethical research practices, and they have led to the development of ethical guidelines for social science research.
Ethical research is fundamental in various fields, especially in the realm of academia and scientific inquiry. Several key components are integral to maintaining the highest standards of ethics in research. These include informed consent, confidentiality, debriefing, avoidance of harm, and justice. Each of these components is essential and must be adequately addressed to ensure the ethical integrity of a research project.
Informed consent is a cornerstone of ethical research. Participants must be provided with comprehensive information about the study, enabling them to make an informed decision about their participation. This information should encompass the title of the project, the names of the researchers, contact information for the researchers, the purpose of the study, detailed procedures, potential risks and benefits, and assurances of anonymity and voluntary participation. The process of obtaining informed consent should be documented and should meet the standards set by institutional review boards (IRBs) or ethics committees.
Confidentiality is another critical aspect of research ethics. Researchers are obligated to protect the privacy of participants by not disclosing personal information without explicit consent. This obligation extends to how data is stored, shared, and published, ensuring that participants’ identities are not inadvertently revealed.
Debriefing is an essential process that occurs after the completion of the research. Participants should be provided with additional information about the study, especially if any form of deception was employed. The debriefing process should offer participants the opportunity to ask questions and express any concerns they might have. This process not only provides closure to participants but also reinforces the transparency of the research process.
The principle of non-maleficence, or avoidance of harm, is a fundamental ethical obligation. Research should not cause physical, psychological, social, or financial harm to participants. Researchers must take proactive steps to minimize any potential risks and ensure that the welfare of participants is a primary consideration.
Justice in research refers to the equitable distribution of both the benefits and burdens of research. This principle mandates that researchers should not exploit any group of participants nor should any group be disproportionately targeted or excluded without justifiable reasons. It also involves ensuring that the benefits of the research are accessible to all, irrespective of demographic factors like socio-economic status, race, gender, or geographic location.
Beyond the key components, there are additional ethical considerations that researchers must address. These considerations include dealing with deception, assessing risks to participants, protecting vulnerable populations, and respecting intellectual property rights. Each of these aspects requires careful contemplation and adherence to ethical guidelines and standards.
Deception in research, while sometimes necessary to maintain the integrity of the study, must be employed judiciously. Researchers must balance the need for deception against the potential for causing harm or distress to participants. When deception is used, it should be disclosed during the debriefing process, and the reasons for its use should be clearly explained.
Any research involving potential risks to participants, whether physical, psychological, or social, demands a thorough assessment. Researchers are responsible for evaluating these risks in relation to the potential benefits of the research. Informed consent processes should explicitly address these risks, allowing participants to make a truly informed decision about their involvement.
Certain populations, such as children, prisoners, and individuals with disabilities, are considered vulnerable in the context of research. These groups may have limited capacity to give informed consent or may be at greater risk of exploitation or harm. Special ethical considerations and protections are necessary when involving these groups in research.
Respect for intellectual property is an essential aspect of research ethics. This includes acknowledging and obtaining permission for the use of copyrighted materials, properly citing sources, and respecting the confidentiality agreements related to proprietary information.
Plagiarism is a serious ethical violation in the academic and research community. It involves the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work. Plagiarism can manifest in various forms, including the direct copying of text, paraphrasing without proper attribution, and claiming credit for others’ ideas or findings.
The Institutional Review Board (IRB) is a committee that reviews research involving human subjects to ensure that the research is conducted ethically. IRBs are required by law in the United States and in many other countries.
The history of IRBs can be traced back to the Nuremberg Code, which was adopted in 1949 in response to the atrocities committed by Nazi doctors during World War II. The Nuremberg Code established basic ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects, including the need for informed consent and the avoidance of unnecessary harm.
In 1964, the Declaration of Helsinki was adopted, providing additional guidance on ethical research practices. The Declaration of Helsinki was revised in 2013 to reflect the changing landscape of biomedical research.
In the United States, the National Research Act of 1974 established the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. The commission was tasked with developing ethical guidelines for research involving human subjects. The commission’s report, “The Belmont Report,” outlined three basic ethical principles for research involving human subjects: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice.
The Belmont Report has been widely adopted by IRBs and has helped to shape the ethical landscape of research involving human subjects. IRBs are responsible for ensuring that research involving human subjects is conducted in accordance with the ethical principles outlined in the Belmont Report.
The Institutional Review Board (IRB) is tasked with ensuring that all research involving human subjects meets established ethical standards. This includes reviewing research protocols to protect the rights and welfare of participants. IRBs do this by reviewing research proposals to ensure that they meet ethical standards. IRBs play an important role in protecting the rights and welfare of human subjects involved in research. By reviewing research proposals and ensuring that research is conducted in accordance with ethical standards, IRBs help to ensure that research is conducted in a responsible and ethical manner.
IRBs review research proposals for a number of factors, including:
- The risks and benefits of the research
- The informed consent process
- The protection of confidentiality
- The selection of research subjects
If an IRB finds that a research proposal does not meet ethical standards, the proposal may be modified or rejected.
The three levels of risk for IRB are:
Studies that meet the criteria for exemption from IRB review do not pose more than minimal risk to participants. Examples of exempt studies include:
Research using existing data or records that cannot be linked back to individual participants.
Research involving surveys or interviews that do not ask about sensitive topics.
Research involving the observation of public behavior.
Studies that involve no more than minimal risk to participants and meet the criteria for expedited review may be reviewed by a single IRB reviewer or a small committee of reviewers. Examples of expedited studies include:
Research involving the use of noninvasive procedures, such as blood pressure checks or physical exams.
Research involving the collection of non-sensitive data, such as demographic information or data about food choices.
Research involving the use of existing data or records that can be linked back to individual participants, but only if the data is de-identified.
Studies that involve more than minimal risk to participants or do not meet the criteria for exempt or expedited review must be reviewed by the full IRB. Examples of full board studies include:
Research involving the use of invasive procedures, such as surgery or blood draws.
Research involving the collection of sensitive data, such as information about mental health or sexual behavior.
Research involving the use of deception or coercion.
American Psychological Association (2017). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ethics/code/
Brandt, A. M. (1978). Racism and research: The case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Daedalus, 107(2), 17-41.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. (1979). The Belmont Report: Ethical principles and guidelines for the protection of human subjects of research. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
National Institutes of Health (2019). Protecting human subjects. Retrieved from https://humansubjects.nih.gov/
Office for Human Research Protections (2022). Protecting human subjects. Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/index.html
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018). Protection of human subjects. Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/humansubjects/index.html
Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York, NY: Random House.